5 awesome facts about documentary family photography

With popularity for documentary family sessions and Day In The Life sessions growing, I feel like there is a responsibility for us to keep talking about what documentary family photography is – and what it is not.

#1 It’s a fly-on-the-wall type situation

The most important thing to know about documentary family photography is that the photographer will take pictures of whatever your family would have been up to that day – even if there was no photographer present. Whether you stay at home, head out for a camping weekend, take your oldest to ballet class, or have to do a quick Target run, the photographer will follow along.

#2 There is no posing, directing, location scouting or outfit-planning

The photographer will simply work around whatever happens naturally – without planning or directing anything. This also means that you don’t need worry about getting in the photographer’s way or ruining a picture by walking by – they may even be hoping someone will walk (or jump!) into the frame so that they can create an extra layer in their photo.

#3 It is almost impossible for documentary family sessions to be done in mini form

Photographing real moments means that we have to give them time and space to happen. The longer I stay with a family, the more moments start to unfold. If a photographer was to try and capture real moments within a 20 minute time frame, it might prove very difficult because everyone is still very much camera-aware, or simply because it’s hard to capture a mixture of moments during such a short time.

#4 There is no “photoshopping” – during the session or after the fact

Being a documentary photographer means following certain rules, like not removing unwanted objects from the scene or “photoshopping” them out later. Whatever is part of your life right now will stay in the pictures.

A rash-free newborn, a pimple-free teenager, a wrinkle-free mom, or a clutter-free kitchen may make for traditionally “beautiful” pictures – but making these “beautifications” to our imagery changes our memories while it also chips away at our sense of what is real.

Capturing your home and family “as is” will not only match the real memories your kids have of their childhood, but it will show them that real life is enough just as it is, and that you are enough just as you are.

Life can be beautiful, chaotic, sometimes boring – but always interesting and never in need of retouching.

Anahita's in-home family session | San Jose natural newborn photographer

#5 The photos are not about imitating real life

While lifestyle sessions often seek to emulate real life moments – often the happy, bright, beautiful parts of it – documentary photography is not about doing things that “seem real”. It is about capturing the real – like a wildlife photographer photographs animals in their natural habitat.

I find that the best tricks to keep things real are to:

  1. Do the session at a time where everyone knows what to do. Morning and evening routines are times when everyone does things as they usually do, and focus less on the camera.
  2. Do the session at a time in your day/life that you would like to remember as is.
  3. Focus on your kids. Kids are usually quick to go back to their regular activities, and giving them your full attention helps not being as aware of the camera.

A disclaimer

Even if pure documentary photography is the gift I want all families to have, I don’t have control of kids hamming it up for the camera, parents planning out activities that they wouldn’t have normally done that day, or the whole lot getting dressed in matching outfits as I arrive.

But I do my very best to talk about what to expect when I drop in to make pictures, because photographs of real memories are the closest thing that we have (so far!) as a way to travel back to times we want to revisit.

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Documentary newborn and family photographer serving San francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and surrounding areas